Boost Your EQ

I have a radical confession to make: I don’t want to manage my stress. Not with therapeutic massages or restorative yoga. Not with hot baths or elaborate bedtime rituals. I just want a life that doesn’t mean I spend half my time stressed out and the other half actively recovering.

Stress is the modern epidemic. With promises to help us cope, products and services are popping up faster than exotic flowers after a desert rain. Mindfulness and meditation have been the heralded buzzwords for quite a while now, and the craze keeps growing — presumably because there’s something to it.

But coping seems a sorry palliative. I want a life that feels joyous, connected, and authentically human. Increasing my capacity to effectively cope with the deluge of modern stresses doesn’t do this; it makes me feel dull, like I’m merely drudging along.

I propose that connecting with our humanity is the best way to deal with stress. Connecting with our humanity begins with connecting with our emotions, but it goes one step further. It ultimately means celebrating the very best aspects of our humanity: love, compassion, wisdom, and enthusiasm. Cultivating these qualities is the key to being a better person. For me, this is the best of human intelligence.

The Problem With Our Understanding of…Understanding

Like many, I used to think that people were born with “intelligence.” Howard Gardner, Harvard professor and pioneer of the theory of multiple intelligences, calls this “the IQ way of thinking:” the belief “that people are either smart or not, are born that way, that there’s nothing much you can do about it, and that tests can tell you if are one of the smart ones or not.” This limited view of intelligence took root during WWI, when the US Army sorted the influx of new soldiers with IQ tests. In subsequent years, debates raged over whether IQ was hereditary, but the general theory of a measurable, testable, single form of intelligence permeated our understanding of human aptitude.

“The IQ way of thinking” is lacking in several ways. For starters, it leaves little room for growth and development. Either you’re one of the lucky gifted ones or not. It also reduces intelligence to the ability to reason abstractly. This leaves no room for other kinds of intelligence, such as artistic, musical, kinetic, or social intelligence. Thanks to the work of Gardner and others, our ideas of intelligence have broadened to include the full range of human aptitudes. We even include our emotions now, the very heart of our humanity. Although researchers have been exploring emotional aptitude for decades, mainstream enthusiasm around the idea is peaking, signifying an important shift in the way we understand ourselves.

EQ vs. IQ

The Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, declared reason as the defining trait of what it means to be human. Think of Descartes: I think, therefore I am. Not I feel, therefore I am. In this paradigm, emotions were seen as pesky interferences to be avoided or controlled, at best. At worst, they dragged us into animal-like behavior, threatening our very humanity. Boosted by the popularity of the term emotional intelligence, modern scientists and proponents of Eastern thought are painting a much more nuanced and favorable view of human emotion.

The term emotional intelligence was popularized by New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman in his seminal 1995 book by the same title. Today, emotional intelligence (popularly referred to as EQ, although Goleman prefers EI) is part of our everyday language. But what does EI actually mean?

Goleman categorizes EI into 4 components: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. For me, emotional intelligence is a catch-all phrase that essentially means being good at being human. Taken one step further, emotional intelligence means becoming better at being. Being includes our capacity to reason abstractly, as well as our capacity to feel authentically: everything from our most compassionate aspirations, our simmering anger, our love for friends and family, to the anxiety that keeps us up at night. However you break it down, emotional intelligence invites our complex emotions into the conversation of what it means to be a person. Ultimately, emotional intelligence asks us to make friends with our emotions and to learn from them. This kind of personal engagement is daunting, beautiful, and deeply rewarding. But knowing where to start can be difficult. Turns out, being good at being human isn’t like learning how to count.

What is Emotional Intelligence Good for? Everything.

For years, psychology has been the go-to resource for developing emotional intelligence. While psychology offers a wide array of tools and support for increasing emotional fluency, Eastern contemplative practices, such as mindfulness, provide a complementary and more general means of increased awareness. However, most people are drawn to meditation and mindfulness as a way to simply reduce stress or increase focus. Few people are aware that meditation offers simple and effective tools for enhancing emotional intelligence, and by extension, our humanity.

CEOs today recognize that meditation and yoga help employees combat the ever-mounting workplace pressures in the same way that factory owners in the industrial age discovered that windows and regular breaks helped increase productivity. Here, the main drive isn’t increased connection or humanity, it’s increased productivity — and greater profits.

The Intersection of Culture and Self

This profit/productivity mindset is deeply ingrained in our culture in much the same way as “the IQ way of thinking.” Once cultural norms become embedded in our psyches, they have a way of seeming self-evident and superior to the alternatives. Shrugging off outdated worldviews isn’t so difficult, like the Victorian belief that women have no sex drive, or that the world is flat, but when you’re truly surrounded by a belief, when your entire culture largely accepts it as true and self-evident, it takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to see otherwise. Investigating culturally sanctioned beliefs is destabilizing to one’s worldview, and thus to one’s understanding of self.

That which is deeply integrated is hard to recognize, and harder yet to evaluate.

There’s another cultural bias that we’re not adequately questioning: the cult of doing. The incessant push to do is a spin-off of the capitalism–production mindset. Do more. Make more money. Buy more stuff. Get stressed out. Do more to stop being stressed, so that you can get back to making money, so that you can buy time off. Or maybe that $6 daily latte.

Viewed through this lens, meditation has become a way for many (but not all) people to manage stress in order to survive a cultural norm that is ultimately exploitative and stressful. Many of us feel like we’re sinking under the weight of our personal and collective stress, so we try different types of lifejackets: the meditation lifejacket, the yoga lifejacket, the glass of wine lifejacket, the excessive-exercise lifejacket. Enough treading water—I’m seeking the grace and confidence of a high diver.

Don’t Just “Manage,” But Embrace

If we’re going to elevate ourselves, we need to embrace our humanity and our messy, vibrant, Pollock-esque emotional tableau. Not manage, but embrace. The very idea of managing is a carry-over from a waning age, an age that prioritized reason and profit over humanity and heart.

In January 2017, the New York Times published an article entitled “From Hands to Heads to Hearts,” tracing the movement from the industrial age to the technological age to the nascent age of humanity. Our country left millions out of the age of technology by neglecting to invest in public education, and now many are clamoring for the glory days of the hands. But the future does not lie in brute manufacturing any more than it lies in coal. While artificial intelligence starts to compete with the very ways we define ourselves — by our abilities to reason and produce — we need to recognize and amp up our best asset: our human heart. In “From Hands to Heads to Hearts,” Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN and author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything, suggests we upgrade the familiar “I think, therefore I am,” to this:

“I care, therefore I am; I hope, therefore I am; I imagine, therefore I am. I am ethical, therefore I am . . . I pause and reflect, therefore I am.”

Taking A Heart-Forward, Human-First Approach

In short, if we’re going to become better at being human, we need to overturn the inherited status of reason and production in favor of our heart and humanity. I’m not suggesting we jettison reason and production, just relegate them to a more appropriate rank. Instead of managing our emotions so that we can better endure what is hurting us, let’s heal our stress by cultivating the most refined aspects of our humanity: love, compassion, and connectivity. Furthermore, lest we forget, nothing soothes an agitated heart better than love, compassion, and joy. This is emotional intelligence at its highest level, and it offers a nourishing and effective response to our deeply human experience of stress.

Ultimately, we each have to find our own way in developing emotional intelligence. Still, many find it easier with a guide, such as a therapist or meditation coach, who can offer individualized assessment and techniques. In this way, meditation coaches and therapists can function like a trusted friend, offering valuable tools and insights for relating to others, while at the same time modeling the kind of relationship we are trying to build with ourselves. Whether you cultivate your heart’s splendid potential alone or with a guide, the emphasis is on connection, both with ourselves and others, and in that way, we are never truly alone.